How Airworks, an Edmonton-based company, reinvented the air compressor
Hot Air Under Pressure
by Alix Kemp
#25 on the Fast Growth 50
Airworks Compressors Corp.
Head office: Edmonton
Industry: Manufacturing and Distribution
2010 gross annual sales: $2,425,462
2008 gross annual sales: $815,354
Three keys to growth:
- Listen to customers’ needs to create new and innovative products
- Take advantage of slowdowns in the market to hire the best talent
- Invest heavily in research and development
photograph Ryan Girard
The customer is always right, so when there’s demand for a product, you listen. That’s what Darryl Weflen, founder and president of Airworks Compressors, figured out when customers came to him asking for a new type of air compressor for on-site repairs in the mining and energy sectors. Weflen owns Airtek Systems, which produces and installs engine-mounted air compressors that draw power from the running engine of the truck in which they’re installed. When customers kept asking for self-powered compressors, Weflen’s company produced a few one-off units. In 2007, however, Syncrude approached the company, frustrated by the engine-mounted compressors it was using in Alberta’s oil sands. Despite coming from a host of different producers, the compressors Syncrude was using continually gave out after only a year in the field. It needed something new, and Weflen was willing to deliver.
In just a few months, he produced a small run of compressors that ran off an internal engine and could mount on the back of a truck rather than in the engine. Made from high-quality components, they were more durable, more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly. Syncrude was thrilled, and nearly five years later, the company is probably even happier – those same units it bought from Weflen at the end of 2007 are all still operational. In 2008, Weflen took that design, the first of the Twister series, and launched Airworks Compressors.
It’s not the first time Weflen identified a need and used it to launch a new company. After moving to Alberta from Saskatoon in 1990, he worked for a company that did compressor installations and became good at installing pre-manufactured compressor systems, a relatively new product at the time. When other companies started approaching him, Weflen realized there was a need for what he was doing. He stayed with the company he was with, but started his own business doing compressor installations out of his garage. In 1995, that grew into Airtek Systems.
Although Airworks was founded just before the 2008 recession, the company thrived from the start because of its innovative product and the demand coming from the oil and gas sector. “What recession?” asks Sheila Stang, the operations manager for Airworks and sister company Airtek.
Instead of being a disaster, Weflen says, the recession was a good thing for the fledgling company. “It gave us the opportunity to pick up some great employees,” he says. Instead of holding Airworks back, Weflen thinks the recession gave the company an advantage over competing firms that had to invest less in developing new products in order to make it through. And while he says the company might have grown more quickly had there not been a recession, Airworks certainly isn’t suffering.
Although most of its customers are in Western Canada, with its thriving oil and mining operations, the company has been expanding into international markets. There are Twister compressors operating in Cuba and South America, and a growing network of dealers through the rest of Canada and the U.S. carry Airworks products.
That growth is obvious when you look at the company’s revenues – Airworks earned $815,354 in 2008 and $1,161,230 in 2009. In 2010, the gross revenues more than doubled, reaching $2,425,462. In fact, it has been growing so quickly that suppliers have had trouble keeping up.
“We found that a lot of suppliers that were carrying a lot of stock on the floor, all of a sudden we were cleaning them out in very short order and scrambling to find other suppliers that could meet our needs,” Weflen says. Outpacing its suppliers is the company’s greatest challenge, he says, more so even than finding adequate labour.
According to Stang, the other challenge is keeping up with Weflen himself, who always has a new idea on the go. The research and development of new products fuels the company.
Right now, Airworks is working on a compressor that doesn’t have an engine.
Air works is already ahead of its competitors, given the advantages its products offer. Not all air compressors are created equal. An average engine-mounted compressor uses approximately 15 litres of fuel in an hour, while a Twister compressor uses about one and a half. And because Airworks compressors don’t run off an idling truck engine, they don’t reduce the lifespan of the vehicle the same way an engine-mounted unit does. That’s good news for energy companies looking to cut overhead and, especially lately, trim their emissions. While Weflen didn’t set out to create a green product, industries are increasingly moving towards environmentally friendly policies, and Airworks compressors can help companies and their contractors become a little greener.
“There are some sites in Fort McMurray, in particular, where they do not want you idling your truck once you get on-site, so if you can pull in and not have to run it, you’ve got the job,” Weflen says. “The guy that pulls in and has to run his truck for an eight- or 10-hour day, he might be looking for work elsewhere.”
Being green isn’t the only thing that sets Airworks products apart. Weflen has also made the compressors a little sexier, trading out boring grays for paint jobs in orange, white, yellow and black. That visual signature makes the company’s products recognizable when they’re mounted on the back of a truck. And Weflen still gets excited when he sees one of his compressors on the road or job site. He’s not the only one, either – Airworks staff text each other photos whenever they catch sight of one of their machines. “It’s exciting for all of us,” he says. “We’re putting our mark out there.”